A glimpse inside the evangelical heart of Huckabee's appeal

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The Independent US

As Pastor Mike Huckabee slipped into the front row of The Crossing evangelical service yesterday, the faithful were already whirling like dervishes around the floor.

A woman in flowing white robes raced to the altar brandishing a sword that she raised above her head without causing as much as a flicker of concern for the Republican candidate. The born-again faithful then raised their hands in ecstasy as three electric guitarists and a singer belted out a number.

Two barefooted dancers performed an impromptu pas de deux as the audience sang "I'm flowing downstream in the river of God," with Pastor Mike enthusiastically singing along. What made it more remarkable was it took place in the the local state junior school, where a banner proclaimed the Messiah's imminent return.

This is a side of the presidential campaign that the American public are not supposed to see. The church service was not on the candidate's busy public schedule yesterday and it was made clear members of the press were not welcome.

Mr Huckabee, an ordained minister of the Baptist church who went on to become governor of Arkansas, scored an upset victory in Iowa on the back of Christian conservative support. Now he is trying to pull off another victory in largely secular New Hampshire, where only 10 per cent of people are regular churchgoers.

In his public appearances in New Hampshire there is not a lot of talk about religion but lots of emphasis on his plan to end income tax altogether by abolishing the Internal Revenue System. That is a surefire vote winner in a state that despises big government and, by popular demand, has neither local sales nor state income tax.

What the candidate is nervous of, at least in New Hampshire, is anything that would show him to be in the clutches of the religious right. That's the reason why one of the main props of his campaign is Chuck Norris, a martial arts celebrity with a 1,000-volt smile. He is there to reassure voters that Mike Huckabee is a regular guy and, after church yesterday, they appeared together at a "Chowderfest Meet & Greet" session. Today, they will launch something called the "Huckaburger" at a local restaurant, hoping to make the evening news.

Mr Huckabee's brand of religion is as conservative as it gets but it is all done with relaxed informality and a winning smile. When the local pastor eventually got up to welcome him, he was dressed as though going for a game of golf, in a green polo shirt and white chinos. Then it was Mr Huckabee's turn, during which he kept the congregation spellbound for 20 minutes as he read from the Bible, cracked jokes and poked fun at himself while delivering a sermon that contrasted the trials of army service with and being an evangelical Christian.

But first he softened up his audience using the skills that have catapulted him into national consciousness and could yet win him the Republican nomination: "I don't worry about anyone in this service getting to heaven," he said, "I'm more worried about you getting so excited you run past it and have to come back.

"I never understood the kind of faith that caused people to go around as if they'd swallowed a curtain rod" he deadpanned, "and vinegar for their breakfast."

He did not belong to a world where "football is where you go to scream, the movies where you go to cry and church where you go to freeze. If we know the Lord, there ought to be joy," he said to thunderous applause and pounding feet.

Even his top campaign advisers do not expect Mr Huckabee to win tomorrow's primary, given he has had only five days of campaigning to exploit the bounce he received from his victory in the Midwestern state of Iowa. But a strong second place showing here, followed by a win in South Carolina, "the buckle of the Bible Belt" could turn him into a viable contender for the nomination.

New Hampshire should be natural territory for Mitt Romney, the arch conservative former Governor of neighbouring Massachusetts. But his attacks adds have only served to put people off, along with his oily ways and habit of flip-flopping all of which led to another Rival John McCain calling him the real candidate of 'change.' What is certain is that conservative Christians and evangelicals will be voting for 'Mike.'

'I think you're going to see a big turnout of evangelicals in Huckabee's camp,' said pastor Garry Hamilton, 'Romney is a flip flopper.'

Back in the junior school, Pastor Mike was busy telling the congregation about God. 'When we become believers,' he said, 'its as if we have signed up to be soldiers in God's army.